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The Phoenix

The Geography of Myths: Tracking the Phoenix throughout the World



A artist's digital image of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Getty Images/James Porto
Each culture has its own myths, tall-tales, and legends. At first sight, the differences between cultures as one travels from place to place seem abundant. People dress differently, speak different languages and worship different deities. Surprisingly, most human societies, despite vast geographic differences, share common threads in their myths and legends one prominent example is the legend of the phoenix.

Like many other components of culture, the main schisms of the myth of the phoenix are between the Eastern and Western world. Today, the phoenix is even more popular today thanks to Harry Potter. As such, it is the story of a mythical bird that lives for centuries and ends its life by bursting into flame followed by rising anew from its ashes. The story of the phoenix is a story that resonates strongly with the human story, which is likely why this mythical bird appears in so many diverse cultures.

The Western Phoenix

Centuries before Harry Potter, the phoenix was made popular in the Western world by the Greeks, who spoke highly of the phoenix's magical and healing powers. Greek and Roman legend told of a bird of brilliant red plumage that emitted pure sunlight and could live for centuries. It would spend its years in Arabia, and upon reaching the end of its lifetime it would fly to Egypt, and build a nest of spices atop the Temple of the Sun. The sun would ignite the nest, engulfing the bird in its flames and leaving behind a new bird to begin the next lifecycle. The new phoenix would then encase its parent's ashes in an egg of myrrh, a spice used to anoint corpses, and transport it to the altar of the sun god.

The Greeks were known to prescribe phoenix ashes to treat medical ailments while the Romans took advantage of the legend and used the phoenix's image on their coins as propaganda. They likened the phoenix's tale of immortality to the longevity of the Roman Empire. Various highly-regarded Christians held the legend of the phoenix in high esteem. Pope St. Clement used the legend of the phoenix to explain Jesus's resurrection, and ties to resurrection after death made the phoenix a popular image on Christian tombstones.

In the Bible, Job 29:18, Job explains that he will multiply his days like "Khol", which means both sand and phoenix in Hebrew and thus leads to some confusion in translation. In Jewish tradition, the phoenix, called khol or milcham, was rewarded with immortal life for being the only creature in the Garden of Eden to refuse the forbidden fruit.

The Eastern Phoenix

In Slavic folklore, the phoenix appears in tall trees as various forms of fire-birds that are known to grant wishes or save the lives of humans in peril. One variation of the legend is the tale of Finist the Bright Falcon. Finist was able to transform between man and bird and whose magical feathers could grant wishes. In the Legend of Finist the Bright Falcon, Finist falls in love with a young maiden and gives her a feather to grant her wishes and a flower to beckon him.

The phoenix is known as the Feng Huang in China. This phoenix was one of the four sacred animals (along with the dragon, tortoise, and unicorn) who helped create the world. Wife to the dragon, Feng Huang represented good luck, balance, and eternal love between a man and wife. Feng Huang controlled all birds and is often depicted with a bevy of small birds following as attendants, and was also a symbol for ying and yang, another popular motif in Asian cultures. Curiously, some accounts of the Feng Huang report that this bird was actually two separate birds or that it has three legs.

Similar to the Chinese Feng Huang, the Vietnamese Phoung was often used as an emblem for queens of the region, as it was a symbol for grace, pride, and nobility. The Phoung was said to be an immense bird whose song made up the five basic tones of the traditional music scale. This phoenix was described as a mismatch of animal parts, including the back of a tortoise and the tail of a fish. The Phoung had the super natural ability to fly over immense distances very quickly, and was known only to rest in very tall trees or mountains.

Unlike Western phoenix legends, Eastern phoenixes are portrayed as being truly immortal, never dying and thus never rising up from its ashes. Both Western and Eastern phoenixes are revered for the qualities and traits they symbolize, although in the West, the legend of the phoenix is often tied to political or religious motives. Despite the differences in each variation of the phoenix legend, it is clear that this myth is one centered on longevity, renewal and most importantly hope.

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